An early English settler in Pennsylvania rendered a gloomy verdict on the landscape he found upon his arrival. “Penn's Woods,” as the land was known, was “not a land of prospects. There is too much wood.”

The disillusioned settler found the forest a dark and foreboding place, where one often could not see the light of day. When someone climbed to the top of a hill for a view, he saw “nothing but an undulating surface of impenetrable forest.”

Today, people aren’t concerned about having “too much wood” in the Bay region, but rather losing what’s left.

While forest land increased during much of the last century, that trend has reversed in recent years. Estimates put forest loss in the watershed at more than 100 acres a day, with areas near the Chesapeake being hardest hit.

Preserving forests is increasingly recognized as vital to the Bay. Acre-for-acre, forests generally leak fewer nutrients than other land uses; any forest loss usually means more nutrient runoff.

But a new report that examines forest policies in the Bay states found a hodgepodge of programs that are unlikely to curb woodland losses. The report suggests that the states need forest preservation goals coupled with a holistic re-examination of programs that affect woodlands, from state infrastructure investments to local tax policies.

“Each of the states has addressed pieces of the problem in a piecemeal fashion,” said James McElfish, Jr., senior attorney with the Environmental Law Institute and an author of the report. “But without that overarching vision, what you are left with is kind of an ad-hoc approach.”

The study, “Forests for the Bay,” was supported by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bay Program.

About 58 percent of the watershed remains forested, but those lands face troubling trends. Remaining forests are increasingly chopped up into smaller fragments, and are divided among increasing numbers of owners — something that can accelerate forest loss, as well as a decline in forest health.

Maintaining or expanding forests are beneficial in almost any setting. Urban forests help reduce stormwater runoff, energy use and air pollution. Streamside forests reduce runoff and improve aquatic habitats. Large forest tracts protect groundwater, reduce runoff, provide habitat and many other services. Studies show that as forest cover in a watershed declines, so does water quality.

While the Bay Program has recognized the importance of streamside forests — it is seeking to restore 2,010 miles of streamside forest by 2010 — the report said “it has become increasingly apparent that larger contiguous areas of forest land must be conserved and maintained if the health of the watershed is to be assured for the long term.”

The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement calls for actions that will “promote the expansion and connection of contiguous forests.” But it has no explicit forest preservation or restoration goals. Such goals were considered during the writing of the agreement, but were dropped because of a lack of consensus.

“You can’t find a strong goal or a strong policy record in the region for forests,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel representing the Bay state legislatures. “Yet we claim that forests are the best land use for the Bay. That tells you how hard forests are to deal with, politically.”

The study recommends the states adopt specific goals for forest cover in rural, urban and suburban areas to help implement Bay Program commitments.

It also recommends a variety of changes to existing tax, acquisition, forest management, land use, and urban forest programs that would improve the forests for the benefit of the public, landowners and the environment.

“Part of the message in this report — and implicit in the Bay agreement — is that we need to be more intentional about forests as a contributor to quality of life and to water quality and to the economy of the area,” McElfish said.

That hasn’t happened, McElfish said, because forests are a “background resource” — trees are what happens on land that is not being used for anything else.

That perception has led to forests being considered more dispensable than other land uses. A new road, for instance, is more likely to be built through “unused” forest land than a farm. Even many land easement and protection programs give forests less priority than other lands.

But addressing forests as a land use is a “daunting task,” said Rick Cooksey, U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Bay Program. Forests still cover 24 million acres within the Chesapeake watershed portions of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and 80 percent of that land is privately owned by hundreds of thousands of individuals.

States, which often don’t like to get involved in local land use, are reluctant to decide where to promote forest management and protection efforts. And with so many trees around, it’s hard for most people to see a problem when bits of forest are lost here and there. “People don’t perceive that this nibbling away at the corners and centers of our forest land areas is having a cumulative impact,” Cooksey said.

As a result, while each of the Bay states have a number of praiseworthy forest protection tools, they do not comprehensively address the forest loss issue, the report says.

But a coordinated approach is important because forest ownership is being increasingly spread among more and more people, each of whom own smaller and smaller tracts. In 1978, about 28 percent of private forests was held in parcels of less than 100 acres. By 1994, more than 41 percent was in such parcels, the report said.

Chopping forest ownership into ever smaller tracts — known as parcelization — is a threat to woodlands because small tract owners are less likely to engage in active forest management. Instead of forests being looked at as a whole, they get managed parcel-by-parcel. Some are harvested, some are neglected, some are developed. The net result is that the health of the entire forest suffers.

Unlike farmers, who often have management plans for their lands, few woodland owners have forest management plans, according to the report. While Pennsylvania has half a million forest land owners, only 2,400 have forest management plans. Maryland has 7,000 plans among its 130,000 forest land owners.

The plans help owners think about forest values and objectives over the long-term. Implemented plans help maintain healthy and diverse woodlands, and can ensure land is managed in the context of the surrounding forests.

Without plans — and an understanding of the potential value of managed woodlands — landowners are more susceptible to offers from developers or sawmills. A particular concern is “high grading” — a practice where a logging company pays a landowner to harvest the largest and most valuable trees, leaving behind a forest of small, less desirable species. With the long-term value diminished, those tracts often end up sold for non-forest uses, such as development, the report said.

As bits of large forests are developed, or become crisscrossed by roads and utility rights-of-way, they become fragmented. Heavily fragmented forests suffer from their own set of problems: they are more prone to disease, habitat values are diminished, they are overrun by exotic species, and overall forest health is reduced.

Because the vast majority of forest lands are destined to remain privately owned, maintaining them means addressing those issues to keep them economically viable. “If you get to some level of fragmentation or land ownership parcelization, you are going to lose that,” Cooksey said.

Tackling forest planning issues now is important, McElfish said. Hardwood trees in the region’s forests are maturing after having been lumbered a century ago. Hardwood values are at a record high, fueling harmful practices such as high-grading.

Targeting high risk areas for landowner outreach and incentive programs could help maintain a sustainable industry over the long-term, McElfish said. Otherwise, many of the more valuable forests could be cut, leaving behind less valuable woodlands, and hurting future economic potential — and the incentive to maintain the forests.

“It would be nice to have a plan for a sustained forest industry,” McElfish said, “because if we don’t, we’re going to hit these hardwoods pretty hard again, and then we might not be able to maintain the forest base over the next 80 years.”

Rural forests aren’t the only woodlands under pressure.

Maintaining viable forests in suburban areas, or on the suburban fringe, is difficult because of intense development pressure. Keeping forests in those areas will likely take more a more active government role, such as policies that keep forest lands from being taxed at their development value.

Whereas preserving large rural forests through public ownership isn’t feasible, the outright acquisition for parks and other purposes may be an important tool in developing areas, the report suggested. In addition, to help increase forest cover within watersheds, programs should encourage the replanting of trees in rights-of-way, school grounds and other public lands.

Local zoning can help by focusing development away from remaining forest tracts, and promoting cluster development to minimize land consumption for new homes. Programs can also encourage the replanting of trees on private lands.

Similarly, in urban areas, programs should look for tree planting opportunities that increase canopy cover and decrease pollution problems, such as stormwater runoff, the report said.

To retain rural, urban and suburban forests for the Chesapeake, the report said the Bay states need to create policies that:

  • conserve a contiguous and economically sustainable rural forest land base;

  • restore connections between separate forest blocks in rural and exurban areas;

  • establish or restore a greater percentage of tree cover in the region’s more developed urban and suburban areas;

  • promote and maintain forest health and quality over time; and

  • provide economic incentives that will affect the decisions of individual and corporate forest owners to retain and protect the forest land base.

To do that, the report says, forest retention must be integrated into all decision making that affects development, from community planning and zoning to state tax policies.

The states have a wide array of existing tax, incentive, acquisition and other programs that can be expanded or improved to protect forests.

For example, it said tax breaks and other incentive programs should be contingent on the development of a forest plan. Neither Pennsylvania nor Virginia requires such plans to get tax breaks, although Maryland does. In addition, it suggested that forest plans be encouraged through tax credits that offset the cost of plan development.

Revising zoning or offering property tax incentives for forest preservation is also important, the report said. Property taxes come due every year, while forests are harvested only periodically, creating an incentive to sell or develop the land.

When local governments adopt forest preservation policies that cost them tax revenue, states may need to back them up with funding, the report said. In 1998, Virginia’s General Assembly approved a measure allowing local governments to grant property tax relief to people who placed riparian forest buffer land into a perpetual conservation easement. No localities have implemented the incentive, which would cost them revenue.

Some of the most aggressive forest protection laws — and most extensive outreach programs for forest owners — exist in Maryland. The state, for example, reaches out to forest owners through direct mail, then follows up with phone calls and personal contact to promote forest planning efforts. The state’s Forest Conservation Act requires reforestation efforts when woodlands are lost to development.

Those policies exist, at least in part, because Maryland has lost a greater percentage of forest land than the other Bay states. If other states start developing more comprehensive forest policies now, Cooksey said, “they might prevent the need for the type of regulatory approaches that Maryland has taken.”

But all of the states have some laudable programs and a range of tools that can be adopted or expanded. The challenge, McElfish, said, is weaving them together into a comprehensive program.

To do that, he said, the states need to make a better assessment of forest lands so they can target their forest protection activities.

“They need to be assertive at least to the point of defining the resource and defining those areas where there is great loss or where there are unfragmented forests,” McElfish said. “They could stop short of saying ‘and therefore we are going to tell you how to operate your land use plan.’ But by failing to define the resource, everyone would be flying blind.”

Swanson, of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said the Bay Program can play a more active role in preserving forest land.

The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement calls for an assessment of “resource lands,” including farms and forests. And, she said, goals to reduce the rate of sprawl by 30 percent, and for permanently preserving 20 percent of the watershed as open space can be crafted in ways that will benefit the region’s forests.

And while the agreement doesn’t have specific forest goals, those could be part of future directives issued by the Executive Council, which includes the governors of the Bay states, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the EPA administrator and the Chesapeake Bay Commission chairman.

“Just because it’s not in the agreement doesn’t mean we can’t see the light,” Swanson said.

Copies of the report, “Forests for the Bay,” are available from the Environmental Law Institute for $20 by calling 800-433-5120. It is available for free in PDF format at

Forests in the Bay States

Maryland: 2.5 million acres of forest (43 percent of land cover) within the Bay basin. About 90 percent is privately owned by 130,000 people. The median forest tract is less than 10 acres. The state lost 100,000 acres of forest between 1985 and 1995.

Pennsylvania: 9.1 million forest acres (63 percent of land cover) within the Bay basin. Statewide, about 74 percent of forest land is privately owned by more than 500,000 people. The median forest tract is less than 20 acres. Forest land cover is largely unchanged within the basin in the past two decades, but increasing development in the southern part of the state and second home developments pose a threat.

Virginia: 8.2 million acres of forest (58.8 percent of land cover) within the Bay basin. Statewide, about 87 percent of forest land is privately owned. The state estimates there are about 300,000 individual forest owners; others put the number at about 468,000. The average forest tract is 29 acres. Between 1985 and 1995, Virginia lost about 200,000 acres of forest within the Bay basin, primarily to development.

Forest Functions Vital to Chesapeake Watershed

The extensive forests of the Bay region provide essential services:

Water Quality: Trees reduce stormwater flow by intercepting rainfall and slowing overland runoff. This allows infiltration of water into the soil, uptake through roots, and evaporation and transpiration. By slowing the rate of discharge to surface waters, trees contribute substantially to reducing erosion and pollution that might otherwise enter the Bay and its tributaries. Trees also absorb and use nutrients that might otherwise be discharged to the Bay. Larger areas of intact forest can provide substantial water quality benefits, while the loss of forest cover is directly correlated with water quality degradation.

Air Quality: Trees remove pollutants from the air, including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter. In addition, trees can reduce and moderate local ambient temperatures, thus reducing energy demand for artificial cooling during peak pollution months. Finally, forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere, helping to offset human-caused climate change effects on a global scale.

Watershed Health & Resilience: Forests help maintain watershed health and resilience by moderating peak stormwater discharges that might otherwise scour banks, harm wetlands, and deposit substantial quantities of sediments into the aquatic environment. Forested watersheds, by holding water, improve the base flow of streams and rivers, thus effectively increasing the quantity of water available for human use and for instream aquatic habitat. Trees also moderate water temperatures, improving habitat quality for fish and other aquatic life.

Habitat: Forests provide essential habitat for birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. Many plant species and fungi are especially adapted to the region’s forest habitats. Forest watersheds are also essential for many fish species and aquatic invertebrates, by maintaining water temperature, water quality, and flow. Intact areas of forest are critically important to forest-nesting species such as migratory songbirds, which require large areas of forest cover to reproduce successfully.

Economic Productivity: Forests provide the basis for numerous jobs in the forest products industry. These can contribute to the economy on a continuous and sustainable basis if forest lands are managed as a renewable resource. Forests provide outdoor recreational benefits including hunting and fishing, wildlife viewing, and forest plant collecting; and they generate economic benefits that are reflected in adjacent property values. Woodlots add value to farms in additional products available for sale or on-farm use. And urban and suburban trees contribute both to property values and to reductions in energy costs.

Quality of Life: Forests contribute to quality of life. They are an essential part of the landscape valued by residents throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. From street trees to majestic and productive hardwood forests, to old growth white pines and hemlocks, the forests of the region are a major contributor to the region’s attractiveness as a place to live, work, visit, and enjoy.

— From “Forests for the Bay”